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Musical Jokes Mixtape

April 4, 2013

One of the best signs of real intelligence is a good sense of humor, and that applies to classical composers and their fans as much as to anybody. Funny stuff has not only popped up in all kinds of music, it goes back a long, long ways: Franz Joseph Haydn, who was born 281 years ago last month and wore a wig, was one of the biggest musical jokesters of all.

Maybe it’s because some folks took music too seriously (and still do) that classical composers had a way of making fun of each other, and even of themselves. Musicians who work in jazz and rock also like to poke their classical colleagues in the ribs from time to time. With this list, you’ll find a variety of reasons to smile and laugh, getting some of that best medicine along with some memorable melodies.

  1. Carmen - Spike Jones
    The most popular opera of all times, Carmen, by 19th-century Frenchman Georges Bizet, gets a tickle here from Spike Jones, one of the most popular musical comedians of the 20th century. Jones makes magical use of sound effects. But do go see the real Carmen if you get a chance, it’s darn good entertainment on its own.
  2. Camp Grenada - Allan Sherman
    Humorist Sherman took ballet music from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda and wrote lyrics (in English) in the form of a letter to “muddah” and “fadduh” from a kid at summer camp, who’s not too happy being away from home, until he finally gets with the program.
  3. Foghorn, Bell, Kazoo - PDQ Bach
    There was a CPE Bach and a JCF Bach, and a few other kids of the eminently famous Johann Sebastian Bach, but “PDQ Bach” is a pseudonym (a made-up name) for Peter Schickele, who’s still alive and who likes reworking the music of JS Bach and other composers, as you can hear here.
  4. Tubby the Tuba - narrated by Victor Jory
    I grew up listening to a 78 rpm recording (a fast-spinning big black disc) of this story, set to music by Paul Tripp, about a poor tuba who feels upset because he never gets heard the way the other, prettier-sounding instruments in the orchestra do. In this section of the story, Tubby runs into a bullfrog who also has a hard time getting heard, and decides to lend Tubby a tune. Listen for the low sounds of the bass violin and bassoon, as well as the title tuba.
  5. Toy Symphony - Neville Marriner
    People used to think this was written by that wacky wig-wearer Haydn, but it’s now thought to have been composed by Leopold Mozart, father to the more famous Wolfgang Mozart. Keeping in mind that this was the 18th Century, see how many toys you can hear, sounding along with the “regular” classical instruments of the time.
  6. Fossils, from Carnival of the Animals - Saint-Saëns, Boston Pops
    More than once, French composer Camille Saint-Saëns used the xylophone to make his music sound like it was being played on a skeleton’s bones. Pretty creepy, huh? But you can tell it’s in fun, particularly if you pick up on some familiar kids tunes which the good monsieur stuck into this section of the Carnival. Get a copy of the whole composition, which makes for a musical zoo (with a bit of museum added on).
  7. A Fifth of Beethoven - Walter Murphy
    Here’s what happens when a familiar piece of classical music (the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) meets rock ‘n’ roll. This is the sound of disco, and was actually on the soundtrack to a movie about disco, Saturday Night Fever, which came out when John Travolta and all the rest of us were young, back in 1977. When you click on it, don’t be surprised if your parents and/or grandparents start dancing. Pretty funny, huh?

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.